Is “blended learning” really the “future” of firearms training?

I recently read a blog post where the author opined that “blended learning” is the “future” of firearms training. As someone who has provided countless hours of in-person firearms training to a few thousand students, and who has also taken part in “blended learning” formatted instruction, this line of thought bothers me a bit.

Before we discuss why, let’s first talk a little about the concept of “blended learning”. “Blended learning” describes a form of instruction that involves multiple delivery methods. Usually, this consists of some form of audio/video presentation of certain portions of the coursework; perhaps a presentation recorded to DVD or, more likely in this day and age, some variety of e-learning software delivered via the internet, and then a follow-up session (or multiple sessions, depending on the coursework) with a teacher, instructor, or “test giver” at a later date. The idea behind the concept is that the student can utilize the e-learning portion of the coursework in the comfort of his or her own home, at his or her own convenience, and then not have to spend as much time at a later date attending the in-person portion of the coursework. It all sounds so good – take the training you desire to take in the comfort of your own home, whenever you feel like it, and then you only have to dedicate a limited amount of time “inconveniencing” yourself with actually having to leave your home and show up for a brief in-person session – I mean, what’s not to like?

In 2012, I attended a training seminar conducted by Rob Pincus in Kansas City, Missouri called “Counter Ambush”. This seminar was being recorded by a film crew and it was slated to later become the first Distance Learning Course ever offered by Rob and his training company. I spent about 8 hours in the class altogether. Rob covered a variety of topics throughout the day, many of them fairly complex, and he covered them in depth. There was a LOT of information taught in that class, and I learned a lot from attending. Due to the nature of the instruction (it was being filmed for a DVD production), it wasn’t possible to ask questions of Rob in real time. It would have simply been too disruptive to the flow of the content and would have created a nightmare for the editors. This presented a bit of a problem as the element of real-time Instructor/Student interaction simply wasn’t possible. Now we were largely able to overcome this problem because Rob made himself available to answer questions and engage in discussions at the completion of each segment of recording and during the lunch break, but from a pure learning standpoint, it would have been beneficial to all of the students in attendance if that interaction could have happened in real time.

A number of months after attending the class with Rob, the “Counter Ambush” distance learning course was released to the general public. Rob was kind enough to send me the complete at-home study course, including the information I needed to complete the e-learning module, take the test online, and receive a completion certificate (assuming I was able to pass the test). The home study course included a full set of 5 DVD’s that contained the recordings of the entire training class, a set of 5 audio CD’s that contained all of the audio from the class, the book, “Counter Ambush”, as well as a student work book designed to help the student prepare for the test. I have to admit that it was a few months before I finally sat down to take the online test. Not because I didn’t want to, but because my bigger priority was in truly learning all of the information presented in the course. I found myself listening to the audio CD’s as I traveled back and forth to work in the car. I probably listened to the entire set at least 20 times over the next few months (I have a fairly long commute). I also watched the DVD set a couple of times on days off. Additionally, I read the Counter Ambush book as time allowed. I finally sat down with the student work book and worked my way through all of the exercises. The next day I sat down at the computer, completed the e-learning module and took the test. I ultimately scored 98% on the test of my first time through and earned a course completion certificate.

I share this story in hopes to convey just how dedicated I was to this training program. I had a strong desire and high level of motivation to take the training. So much so that I took a day off of work and drove 4 ½ hours to Kansas City so I could attend. I took meticulous notes during the in-person class – five full pages in small print. I still have those notes and still refer to them from time to time. I asked a ton of questions at the end of the sessions and during the lunch breaks, and was provided with valuable feed back in exchange. I then spent another 50+ hours listening to the audio CD’s, watching the DVD set, reading the book, and taking the e-learning portion of the class. And I still listen to the audio set (now more conveniently loaded on my i-pod) every few months in my commute back and forth to work. In addition, I’ve conducted a considerable amount of my own study into a lot of the topics covered in the course. I also continue to consult with Rob on a regular basis and have incorporated a lot of the concepts into my own proprietary coursework.

My point here is that I truly learned a lot in this “blended learning” format. More than I can even try to convey in a blog post. Not only that, but what I learned from the coursework, I’ve actually gone on to anchor and, in my view, even master. Between the information I learned from the class and the subsequent study I’ve done on my own, I am able to speak about and teach the concepts with a high level of competency.

So why won’t the “blended learning” format work for new, inexperienced shooters when it comes time to learn the mechanical aspects and operation of firearms and ammunition, safe gun handling practices, and basic shooting fundamentals? Well, there is nothing that says it absolutely can’t work. Though there are certainly a considerable number of hurdles that would have to first be overcome. My understanding of the new “blended learning” format that is going to be rolled out by one of the most prominent training organizations in the country is that the “blended learning” courses will involve an e-learning module delivered via the internet, then will involve the student meeting in-person with an instructor at a later date who will then perform some variety of evaluation to ascertain whether or not the student actually learned the information presented in the e-learning module. Then, if the instructor is satisfied with the knowledge level of the student, he or she will conduct some variety or live-fire session and then either give a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” depending on how well the student performed, before a completion certificate will be issued.

Here are the most major problems with this proposed format as I see them:

First and foremost, in order for learning at any level to take place, regardless of format, it requires a considerable amount of dedication and motivation on the part of the student. This level of dedication and motivation is rather easy for a competent, living, breathing instructor to ascertain. It’s also fairly easy for the competent instructor to help nurture dedication and inspire motivation. As I explained in my story above, I was very dedicated and highly motivated in my “blended learning” experience, and I learned a lot. I am a “self starter”. Many people are not. In fact, from what I’ve seen in many of the beginner level courses I’ve been involved with is that most people aren’t. A lot of students seem to show up to these kinds of classes simply so they can “check off the box” and complete the training their state mandated they complete before being issued a carry permit or a permit to purchase a firearm. Oftentimes a competent, dedicated instructor can “get through” to them during the class and you can see a real change in their motivation and dedication. I simply don’t see any way an e-learning module will ever be able to do that. These “check the box” students will likely do the bare minimum needed to complete the on-line test at the end of the module with a passing grade. They will then show up to the in-person training session and waste the instructor’s time in addition to wasting the time of any other students in attendance, not to mention their own time. Of course, they will go home blaming the instructor for all of their problems and their lack of competency at the end of the day.

Secondly, we have to understand the different types of learners in order to appreciate the dynamic instruction that is provided by a professional, competent trainer. There are three primary learning styles. These include Visual Learners, Auditory Learners, and Kinisthetic Learners. Visual Learners tend to learn best through visual stimulation. They require visual access to the complete presentation – body language, facial expressions, hand gestures, and any written or multi-media presentation that goes with it – in order to get the most out of the instruction. Auditory Learners learn best by hearing, listening, and speaking. They learn best by being involved in discussions, listening to a well-presented lecture, and by participating in brainstorming sessions with other participants. Lastly, is the Kinisthetic Learner. They learn best in a hands-on learning environment. They need to be able to touch, feel, and interact with the physical world around them in order to learn best.

The problem presented by “blended learning”, specifically an e-learning system, is that it falls short with every type of learner mentioned. Recorded media, as good as it is and even in an interactive form, simply can’t provide all of the visual components that the Visual Learner requires. It fails the Auditory Learner because it can’t fulfill the need for auditory interaction. Even in its most interactive forms, it can’t involve the Auditory Learner in discussions or in brainstorming sessions. And the shortcomings it presents to the Kinisthetic Learner are innumerable. It simply fails in every way.

The third problem is accountability. I’ve yet to see this organization address this potential problem. If students are completing a significant portion of the training via an e-learning module in the comfort of their home, and scheduling the in-person session at a later date, the instructor really has no way to know for certain that the person showing up for the in-person session is the one who actually completed the e-learning module. As an instructor, I’d have a hard time giving my “endorsement” to a student whom I am uncertain actually completed the coursework in its entirety.

The fourth major problem is that it undermines the credibility of the instructor. In the case of a national training organization, students will definitely wonder why the informational part of the coursework has been taken out of the hands of the instructor and switched to an e-learning format. If the organization doesn’t trust the instructor to provide competent instruction, why should the student trust him or her? Credibility is paramount as a trainer. Without credibility, the trainer will never gain the trust of the student. Furthermore, it simply doesn’t make sense from a logical standpoint to entrust instructors to provide live-fire training, when you don’t trust them with providing informational training. I dare say the former requires considerably more competence and integrity than the later, at least in matters of liability.

The last major problem as I see it is that this format will increase the cost of training to the student. A quality e-learning system and the required software are not inexpensive. While to my knowledge a price structure has not been released, whatever the cost of the e-learning portion of the class can be added to whatever the current rate for in-person instruction is now. An instructor’s time doesn’t suddenly become less valuable just because the accrediting organization has decided to sell a portion of the training directly. So if the student can currently purchase the entire class via an in-person format for $100, the same class will now cost them $100 plus what I am guessing will be somewhere in the $50 – $75 neighborhood for the e-learning portion. This is a significant price increase. Multiply that by the number of family members that would potentially take the training, and it could be a real financial burden. And while the living, breathing instructor might be willing to provide a family discount, you can be pretty certain that the e-learning system won’t do the same.

In summary, while it might be possible for “blended learning” to work for some new, inexperienced shooters as far as teaching the basics is concerned, it is my belief that it won’t work for many based on the reasons I mentioned above. Safe, effective shooting skills can be compared to most any other set of athletic skills as far as skill development is concerned. It takes dedication and motivation on the part of the student, and requires the guidance of an experienced, competent coach or instructor if the student is to ever reach his or her full potential. While I am hoping to see better results than I expect once the “blended learning” courses are made available, I can’t help but feel as though I will be disappointed at the end of the day.

As always, stay safe.

~ Chris Shoffner ~

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